ROTY, Down to the Wire
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With just a few games left in the 2022 NBA regular season, debates for the revered end-of-year awards are becoming more frenzied, and this year’s Rookie of the Year (ROTY) race has not disappointed. With the season set to finish in less than a week, the trophy is anything but decided. The 2021 draft has produced a star-studded pool of young talent, from which several deserving candidates have emerged as forerunners for the award.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey initially looked to be a promising early-season contender for the ROTY award, but a hip injury suffered in February has ruled him out for the season, ending his chances at winning. Recent second overall selection, Houston Rockets’ Jalen Green, has picked up speed after a slower start to the season, but even his drastic improvement over the last 15 games isn’t enough to propel him over the ROTY frontrunners. As the season comes to a close, the race seems to have narrowed down to three rookies, each of whom have posted incredible seasons for their respective teams.
Center Evan Mobley, the Cleveland Cavaliers’s third overall selection, is developing into the elite center that the Cavaliers have long lacked. After solidifying their backcourt in the 2018 and 2019 drafts with Colin Sexton and Darius Garland, respectively, the Cavs have finally found a stud to vitalize their frontcourt. Mobley is averaging just over 15 points per game while also delivering a consistently stellar defensive effort––albeit against generally worse competition than other ROTY candidates like Raptors forward Scottie Barnes. The Cavs sit just above the play-in tournament this year (after finishing 13th in the conference last season), clear evidence of how important Mobley’s role on the team has been for them this season.
While Mobley’s accomplishments are nothing to scoff at, Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham and Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes have reached another level this season––a level that suggests they will be superstars in the league for many years to come.
Cunningham, the 6’7 guard who was selected first overall by the Pistons last summer, started off the season slow due to an injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the preseason. Though many critics were quick to count him out from the race, Cade has been on an unprecedented streak the past few months, putting up some of the best stats from a rookie since Michael Jordan’s historic 1984 season. In his last three games, he averaged 26 points and eight assists, stellar numbers for a first-year player in the league.
Like Lamelo Ball, last year’s ROTY, Cade has taken charge of his team and elevated their level of play. On a roster stacked with young talent with the likes of Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, and Saddiq Bey, Cunningham stands out due to his veteran-like control of the game’s pace, as well as his dual ability to both score and pass the ball. What he lacks in speed and explosion, he more than makes up for by using his craftiness and complex knowledge of the game. When looking to score, he employs his great balance and strong dribble to get to the rim, where he can finish dexterously with either hand. If he instead sees a passing angle, Cade’s large frame allows him to make passes that other guards are not able to. The multitudinous facets of Cade’s game are what make him such a threat in any situation, and allow him to adapt and play off of his teammates.
While Cade had a slow start to the season, he shows potential to be a perennial all-star and leader for the Pistons. After a 40/11 performance during his freshman year at Oklahoma State, his coach Mike Boynton said, “He’s going to be on to bigger and better things, and he’s going to be doing that with some of the best defenders in the whole world in about seven or eight months.” Cade’s flashes of brilliance as well as basketball IQ well beyond his years have propelled him to contention in this year’s ROTY race. However, there remains one player between him and the trophy.
Scottie Barnes, the 20-year old Raptors forward from Florida, has been putting together a stellar rookie season that possibly outshines those of both Mobley’s and Cunningham’s. After an abysmal last season, the Raptors seemed to be embracing a rebuild, but Barnes’s outstanding play this year has powered the team to fifth in the conference and a guaranteed playoff berth. A skilled, dynamic forward with an incredible eye for the game, Barnes has solidified the Raptors’s frontcourt and fits in perfectly with the Raptors’s positionally fluid playstyle. He’s filled every role from center to point guard (albeit in brief stints) this season while maintaining an elite level of play.
Barnes has dominated across the stat sheet this year, being the only player to rank in the top three among rookies across all major statistics (points, rebounds, assists, and steals). Averaging 15.4 points per game, Barnes ranks third in this year’s rookie class, and first among players with more than 70 games played. If his dominance in the paint hasn’t been enough, he’s drastically improved his field goal shot throughout the season, shooting 49.5 percent over the last fifteen games. His career best 31 points and 12 defensive rebounds against the Lakers on March 18 brought Barnes’s total to 12 double-doubles. His dominance in that game also prompted Lakers’ superstar Lebron James to share his thoughts on Barnes, who first met James back in his seventh grade year: “It may have been a surprise to some of you guys, but it’s no surprise to me. It’s a beautiful thing to watch,” James said.
Trusting in Barnes’s defensive ability, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has consistently deployed Barnes against the likes of James Harden, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, and other top players in the league. In most cases, Barnes has fared quite well against this elite competition, defending at a far higher level as compared to his fellow ROTY candidates. His defense, as Nick Nurse has often stated throughout the season, is reminiscent of that of a veteran in the league.
While Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley have each been dominant in their own right, Barnes has been the most dominant two-way rookie this year by far. Assuming Barnes’s electrifying play and exuberant personality will continue for the remainder of this season, it seems like the ROTY trophy has Scottie Barnes’s name written all over it.